MANATEE — Michael Gallen thought politics could wait.
The son of a judge and former state legislator, the Bradenton attorney was more comfortable teaching government than practicing it.
Until a cancer diagnosis taught him how fragile life can be.
Gallen decided to run for the District 2 seat of the Manatee County Commission — a race he won handily Tuesday night over veteran Commissioner Gwen Brown, surprising local pundits — only after he beat testicular cancer, those closest to him told the Herald.
His family said his cancer fight exemplifies the kind of person Manatee County voters hired.
“Michael reacted like he does,” said Mary Gallen, his oldest sister and campaign treasurer. “He’s in control. He’s clearly upset, but he has a family so he has to keep it together. He worked on taking steps to take action.”
Michael Gallen, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, chose to undergo surgery to remove his lymph nodes at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and was declared cancer-free about a year ago just before he began to campaign, Mary Gallen said.
He told family members about the cancer in early 2008.
“That helped him make his decision to run,” sister Kathleen Gallen said of his victory over the disease.
Michael Gallen, 36 and the father of three, is the son of Thomas Gallen, a senior circuit court judge who also served 12 years in the Florida Legislature. A Democrat, Michael Gallen won the commissioner’s seat because there is no opposition in the November general election.
Thomas Gallen said he never thought his youngest child would follow him into politics. But when Michael Gallen moved back to Manatee County after working as an attorney in Tallahassee, the seeds of public service were sown.
“I did not encourage him one iota. I tried to discourage him,” the elder Gallen said. “He’s got a passion and extreme dedication to the community. I don’t think it’s a political aspiration; he just wants what’s best for the community.”
Commissioner Joe McClash, who has been on the board since 1990, welcomed Michael Gallen’s fresh voice.
“I think he’s an excellent addition to the board of county commissioners,” McClash said. “He’s the type of person you’d like to see run for office. We need younger people to step up and be leaders in the community.”
McClash said Gallen’s experience working as an attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Policy and the Florida House business regulations committee will serve the county well.
“That’s a talent we really need, someone who knows the Tallahassee politics and knows environmental policy. It brings a different type of information to the board,” he said.
Michael Gallen is the youngest of Thomas and Linda Gallen’s four children. He was 10 years younger than brother Thomas Jr. and five years younger than Mary. Kathleen is three years older.
But Mary said he wasn’t a typical youngest child.
“He was the youngest, but he seemed much older,” she said. “He did have a maturity about him. It was like you were having a conversation with someone your own age.”
Thomas Gallen said Michael rarely got into trouble — he skipped class one day as senior at Manatee High, but so did most of his classmates.
“He was always quiet and kind of laid back,” Thomas Gallen said. “We didn’t think he was very aggressive until he started wrestling. He matured and developed a lot as a wrestler.”
Michael Gallen didn’t take up wrestling until his freshman year at Manatee but was a standout by the end of his prep career. As a senior, Michael Gallen appeared destined for the state meet until he was derailed by an elbow injury at regionals.
The day after suffering the injury, he competed with an elbow “the size of a grapefruit” and lost to a Sarasota High opponent he had defeated three times that season, Thomas Gallen said.
Michael Gallen graduated from the University of Georgia and Nova Southeastern University School of Law before going to work as an attorney in Tallahassee.
After meeting his wife, Alexandra, there, Gallen returned to Manatee and took a job teaching American government and history at Lakewood Ranch High.
Fellow government teacher Rob Moates, who started the same year as Gallen, described him as a dedicated teacher who expends extra energy to make sure his students connect to the material they’re studying.
The two eat lunch together, and Moates said he enjoys sharing dishes prepared by Alexandra Gallen, who is of Peruvian descent, even if Moates can’t remember what they’re called.
“I just take them and eat them,” he said.
He said Lakewood Ranch students and teachers are excited for Gallen’s success, even though it means he will be leaving them later this year to become a full-time commissioner.
“At Lakewood Ranch, we consider ourselves a family. So it’s a proud day for us, too,” Moates said. “Teaching for both of us is just a way to do public service.”